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How Room to Read sustained their educational mission through the pandemic, and came out strong - a Sage Intacct story

Jon Reed Profile picture for user jreed December 16, 2021
The pandemic brought curveballs for most organizations - and Room to Read was no exception. At a recent Sage Intacct event, we learned firsthand about what Room to Read faced, how their finance team adapted - and emerged stronger.

room to read

Not all analyst days are created equal. For their fall analyst event in Healdsburg, Sage Intacct did something few vendors do: they brought in several customers. That brought more clarity on project value than anything else we discussed.

The only problem? On diginomica, I didn't get to all of them. I shared one use case afterward: How Mob Scene went from a pandemic low point towards the continuous close - a Hollywood type of finance story. I worked Oxford Collection's story into our Sage Transform coverage (Sage Transform - knocking down barriers is the theme, but how do finance teams change?).

That leaves the remarkable story of Room to Read - a use case with holiday spirit if there ever was one. Room to Read has a simple-but-essential mission: they are "an organization that believes World Change Starts with Educated Children." (And yes, they take donations, which are being matched as of this writing, by an anonymous donor).

How does Room to Read get closer to this ambition? By teaching literacy in the first and second grades, through government schools in low-income countries. Room to Read also offers girls' education programs, with the aim of keeping adolescent girls in school via life skills training.

Like any non-profit, fiscal savvy is the difference between a good idea and a sustainable organization. Alas, Room to Read took it on the chin during the pandemic, with their on-the-ground commitments in local communities. But, as Room to Read CFO Shari Freedman told us, they found a way through.

The remote finance shift - "We have twenty audits that we do externally around the world"

When the pandemic hit, Room to Read had been on Sage Intacct for five years. So how did they fare? As Freedman told us: 

We have a workforce of 1,600 people, and they went home one day, and everybody worked from home. In some of the countries [we work in], the government locked down in ways that were really intense - like if you were on street walking around, you were arrested... It was pretty intense. So the safety of our employees was really important.

We have twenty audits that we do externally around the world. To a letter, every single one of them was conducted externally, remotely, online.

Remote work caused an accounting shuffle:

One of the benefits of Sage Intacct that I can talk about at any point is: I was able to move the majority of my controller staff to our India office. They're all our full-time employees; we don't outsource anything. That staff is able to attract and retain talented chartered financial accountants that we could not get in the bay area. We couldn't get anybody in the bay area to stay; it was so expensive, and it was very difficult. So we were able to have the talent, and then be able to have them work remotely.

Audits had to be changed up on the fly:

We moved our auditors, Grant Thornton, to a remote audit. We conducted a consolidated audit - a single audit without any deficiencies. We were able to do all of the audits across Bangladesh, Nepal, India, every single one of them. We conducted, for the first time, three internal audits all remotely. We re-budgeted three times in the first few months of COVID tracking.

Revenue took a big hit: Room to Read's biggest fundraising galas take place the first few months of the year - and generate 15 percent of the yearly income. But with events getting cancelled in Hong Kong, postponed and then cancelled in Japan, money was tight. Time to bear down on budgeting:

The first couple months, we started to really budget... We pushed our organization the first time, and got pretty far.

The second round of cuts, in May 2020, was tougher:

By May, we decided to do another seven percent, which was the first time we did anything with people. We had done all of the reductions without affecting [people] at all. We really did limit the amount of restructuring we did to a very small amount.

Freedman's team fought to keep the labor cuts small - because the mission doesn't go away.

We kept almost everybody, because we believed what we needed to do was deliver content, and deliver materials to children.

Delivering content in pandemic times - "We began to get very, very innovative"

But how do you deliver content like that during a pandemic? Freedman:

We began to get very, very innovative. We were on the radio, old school. They don't have any Internet; these children don't get cell phones. We were on the radio, or on TV in Bangladesh.

Freedman shared an indelible pandemic image: Room to Read kids, eager to keep learning, gather 'round the radio - with their school uniforms on.

We did send materials; we did hardcopy printing and got them delivered as best we could. We've managed to impact a lot of kids. For the girls' education program, the social mobilizers used Facebook; they used all sorts of SMS to make connections, to know where kids were, were they safe, do they need an intervention - and then how we can keep delivering some of the life skills that we could do, and any kind of mentoring and coaching. Some of these girls, if they aren't in school, they're getting married... It was very, very real for us in that time.

The pandemic brought constant curveballs. Schools would open - and then close again. Freedman realized the planning process needed a change. "We were scrambling, and we've done some really amazing work to pivot our program," says Freedman.

The pandemic also presents opportunities. With the help of implementation partner Armanino, they were able to move their India country office fully onto Sage Intacct - a goal of Freedman's since 2015 (prior to that, the Indian office was keeping two sets of books, for compliance reasons). Freedman thought, "Well, COVID is a perfect opportunity to do so." The entire implementation was done by Armanino remotely.

Fast forward to 2021: the vaccine economy keeps things challenging, but donors still expect results. That puts the pressure on finance and reporting. Freedman told us a key Sage Intacct attribute keeps those donors happy: the ability to report granular numbers.

I think the biggest change for us as an organization going to Intacct was our ability to deliver against our general reporting. We went from average cost, from peanut butter kinds of reports to very specific, transparent, "This is what you gave us money for; this is where we spent it, and this is how we spent it." We can do that across any country, in any way.

Donations, in turn, have moved in a welcome direction:

That has resulted in an unbelievable shift in the kind of donations we've received. Our bread and butter was the $35,000 $40,000 gifts... We get many eight-figure donations now.

My team sits right with the relationship managers, developing the budgets for the proposal pitch. And then we are producing the reports, for how it's all going - that we could not have done. We redesigned our chart of accounts, and we'll redesign again. We're thinking the business has changed enough, that we're already in the redesigning mode right now. And we're not scared.

Sounds like Room to Read's mission has been put to the test - as has their sustainability. So far, so good.

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